Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Nuclear-Free Iran

For 40 years, the US watched and spied on the Soviet Union, wanting to know absolutely everything about the Soviet nuclear program. Some of the things the US wanted to know is: Where are the warheads? How big are they? What are they made of? What sort of protection do they have?

A little background. The idea behind CAT scans, tomography, was first implemented in 1972. High density materials (like Uranium) can be detected by muon radiography. This US government lab article on detecting nuclear contraband may be helpful. The US has been putting up satellites for about 30 of the 40 years it was trying to spy on the Soviet Union. It doesn't take a genius to ask: Can we make some sort of CAT-scan of the earth to try to find nuclear materials from space? If the CAT-scan (tomography) analogy doesn't persuade you, think about side-looking radar and sonar. Or the related system, Synthetic Aperture Radar. Just use these technologies as examples of what you can do with math, physics, and a lot of money.

The question is naive but opens up a myriad of questions and possible technologies for finding nuclear materials. And not only from space. The US has stealth aircraft. Would the US put a muon detector or other device in a stealth aircraft and fly it over Iran some night? You bet it would.

If you can't find the weak effect of a small warhead with one aircraft, how about a fleet of drones? Or a fleet of satellites crossing over Iran day after day? Could you build a stealth satellite? For a billion bucks? I think so.

The specific technologies mentioned are speculative. I'm just trying to get across the idea that it's possible to do something like it. Has the US spent a billion or so over the last 40 years on secret means of detecting nuclear materials? I think so. Maybe ten billion. What could be more important?

Politically, the upshot is that the US very probably has technology and information that Iran can barely guess at. As a practical matter, I don't think the Iranians, or anybody else, can regard the location of their nuclear materials as secret. Bunkers? The Soviet Union had all the bunkers they wanted, and the US knew it needed to counter them.

Don't be surprised if the US destroys all the Iranian nuclear warheads one night. If they do it, the US should put Palestinian markings on the bombs. Deny everything. Say the Palestinians did it.

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